Primary source is a term used in a number of disciplines. In historiography, a primary source (also called original source) is a document, recording or other source of information that was created at the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which often cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources.
The Danish historian Olden-Jørgensen (2001, p. 74) writes:
Another of Kristian Erslev's rules of thumb is to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. This differentiation should not be mixed up with the English expression "primary sources" and "secondary sources", which designates (printed and non-printed) sources, respective (secondary) literature. Neither should it be mixed up with the classification into firsthand and second hand witnesses, i.e. eye- and ear-witnesses on the one hand and on the other hand others, which have their knowledge from firsthand witnesses, from other secondhand witnesses or who have copied others writings.
A primary source is a source which are not based on any other existing or kept source (but perhaps on lost sources). (Translated from Danish by BH)
Similar (but not identical) definitions are used in library science, and other areas of scholarship. A primary source could be a first-handed source from the past including diaries or artifacts. Primary sources have been described as those sources closest to the origin of the information or idea under study. Primary sources have been said to provide researchers with "direct, unmediated information about the object of study." They may contain original research or new information not previously published elsewhere. They serve as an original source of information or new ideas about the topic. Primary and secondary, however, are relative terms, and a given source may be classified as primary or secondary, depending on how it is used.
Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field. For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source, but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary".
For some authors, the primary nature of a source may also derive from the fact that no copy of an original source material exists, and it is the oldest extant source for the information cited.
Another use is: In the cases in which a printed version of a document is made from an electronic version the electronic version may be termed the primary document.
Many scholars have commented on the difficulty in producing secondary source narratives from the "raw data" which makes up the past. Historian/philosopher Hayden White has written extensively on the ways in which the rhetorical strategies by which historians construct narratives about the past, and what sorts of assumptions about time, history, and events are embedded in the very structure of the historical narrative. In any case, the question of the exact relation between "historical facts" and the content of "written history" has been a topic of discussion among historians since at least the nineteenth century, when much of the modern profession of history came into being.
As a general rule, modern historians prefer to go back to primary sources, if available, as well as seeking new ones, because primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions, and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. On the other hand, most undergraduate research projects are limited to secondary source material.
In scientific literature, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. In political history, primary sources reflect documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the main primary sources are books, essays and letters written by intellectuals.
A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include physical objects like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three main types.
In the study of historiography, when the study of history is itself subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources.
The Lafayette College Library, for example, provides the following synopsis of primary sources in several basic areas of study:
"The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.
- In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
- In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
- In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results.
In the US, digital primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Library of Congress maintains several online Digital Collections where they can be retrieved. Examples of these are American Memory and the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) The National Archives and Records Administration also has such a tool, called Access to Archival Databases (AAD)
In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalogue and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own on-line catalogues. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.
In Australia, the National Archives of Australia has digitised a number of classes of records and will produce digitised copies of suitable documents on demand.
History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history.". Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only documents relating to an event or person in the distant past were written decades or centuries later. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.
Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done.
However, primary sources - particularly those from before the 20th century - may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous and very difficult to analyse and interpret. Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, The interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, however advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.
The following questions are asked about primary sources:
For centuries the Popes used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the secular power of the Papacy. Among the earliest forgeries are Anglo-Saxon Charters. There are a number of 11th and 12th century forgeries produced by monasteries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost (or never existed). One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering who placed false monumental brasses in a local church. In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper "authenticated" the Hitler diaries which proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance. However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance.